On December 21, well after various best-of-2011 lists had been tabulated and published, Abel Tesfaye pulled off one of the most ambitious feats of the year by releasing Echoes of Silence. Merely completing the trilogy he promised on time (Echoes follows earlier 2011 releases House of Balloons and Thursday) was one thing. That he appears to have defied the law of diminishing returns in doing so is an altogether more impressive achievement.
The Weeknd—Tesfaye, along with producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo—first came to us in March with the fully realized universe of House of Balloons. At the center was a preternaturally cocky, impossibly cynical twenty-year-old whose interests in recreational drugs and sex stretched the bounds of megalomania, surrounded by a coterie of beautiful girls and some real future-s**t sonics. On Thursday, he presented a similar image, but Tesfaye also began to dabble in more dynamic narratives—like the two-part suite “The Birds,” which built a whole cautionary tale out of its refrain, “Don’t make me make you fall in love with a n***a like me.”
Echoes of Silence, which draws heavily from the first two tapes, continues the trend toward animating, rather than merely describing, its narrator. On House of Balloons, Tesfaye was making his boasts and come-ons to an archetypal groupie. The conversational tone continues on Echoes, but now he’s got a history with his foils that explains the motivation for his misogyny. Addressing a girl who spurned him before his rise to fame on “The Host” and “Initiation,” Tesfaye is even more coercive, cruel, and empty of empathy than he was on “The Birds.” It’s telling that Tesfaye’s cover of Michael Jackson’s most vitriolic composition, “Dirty Diana,” replete with a stunningly accurate impersonation of the King of Pop, still pales in comparison to the venom Tesfaye spits elsewhere on Echoes.
The backdrop for all Tesfaye’s late-night exploits, provided by Doc and Illangelo, is cut from a similar cloth as the prior two tapes. Their work with the Weeknd, which interweaves strands of bedroom pop, dubstep and IDM, has probably done more to revolutionize R&B than anything in the past decade. There are enough common elements across all three Weeknd albums that they’re more often soundscaping Tesfaye’s creepy, nocturnal universe than churning out smash singles. But the slow jams occasionally become listless, and the Weeknd’s always been at its best when the pair punch up the drum machines: “High for This,” “The Birds, Pt. 2,” and, on Echoes, “XO.” The track’s chorus is a sort of theme song for the Weeknd. The verses, though, feel like the terminus of Tesfaye’s sociopathic persona: proposing to make a sex tape with yet another conquest, he sings, “I wanna catch you at your best/ When your hair’s a mess/ You look so depressed/ And you’re filled with regret.” It’s the latest and most harrowing example of Tesfaye’s endlessly quotable, inimitably scored exploration of the depths of depravity.